Wes Anderson, American Auteur

Written by Monica Jowett

Known for their unique narrative and personal style, Wes Anderson’s films are well loved and critically acclaimed. In a career covering over two decades so far and a few Academy Award nominations under his belt, Anderson shows a personal creative vision for each of his films. The trademarks of his films seen through cinematography and story, suggests Anderson may be considered a modern filmmaking Auteur. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004) is just one of many films that advocates this.

Though The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was less well received as some of Anderson’s other films, it is a perfect example of a movie that utilises all the visual and narrative techniques Anderson has become associated with. What is most noticeable in Anderson’s films is the wide screen anamorphic format that is not often used for comedies and brings on screen action into focus, and also allows for a lot of detail for the mise-en-scène. First used in Bottle Rocket (1996) and continued in the rest of his film, with varying ratios, the wide screen format has become a staple of Anderson’s film. The Life Aquatic applies it well, particularly in scenes that have the whole cast on screen. Almost ten people can be seen clearly, and means the viewer can see the often amusing background action. Anderson stated, “What a lovely shape to make these pictures in” in an interview with Matt Zoller Seitz for The Wes Anderson Collection. 

Anderson has other traits such as symmetrical shots that have a central point, usually a character. This is seen frequently in his most recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) though all his films have many shots where a character or an object is exactly aligned in the middle of the frame. Similar to this use of symmetrical framing is the frequent use of slow motion for ending shots. In The Life Aquatic, Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) walks along the red carpet for his premiere carrying a small boy on his shoulders, with a whole crowd following in the last scene. The slow motion also happens in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) as the whole family leaves the graveside one by one, all slow motion.

What I greatly admire about Andersons’ films is his eye for detail. Through mise-en-scène – that is the staging and scenery of a shot – we can see how much thought is put into every piece of the film from the colour palettes to the stop motion animated animals. The precise staging and costume is a recurrence for Anderson’s films, the props used subtly to engage more emotion, sometimes important parts of the character, like Suzie’s (Kara Hayward) books in Moonrise Kingdom (2012) or referenced throughout as though as an ongoing joke, like the red hats in The Life Aquatic. In fact Anderson wanted the costumes of the crew in The Life Aquatic to look like something out of Star Trek. All of these clear concepts Anderson has for his films do imply Anderson as an Auteur.

Narrative styles in Hollywood films is usually linear, and though his films do unfold in this way, Anderson’s storytelling jumps about, involving flashbacks, side stories and direct to camera narration, such as in Moonrise Kingdom. He also uses title cards to dissect the story into parts. The Life Aquatic does this through its film within a film, as Zissou shoots a documentary about tracking the infamous jaguar shark. Similarly The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums do this, as the film is broken into parts including a prologue and epilogue.  Wes Anderson’s films often centre around a dysfunctional family group, whether related or not, and the central character as a father like figure. The Life Aquatic has Steve Zissou, The Grand Budapest Hotel has M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), The Royal Tenenbaums has Royal (Gene Hackman), The Darjeeling Limited (2007) has Francis (Owen Wilson) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) has Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney) who are all eccentric and tormented by something in their own way, be it the death of a friend, estrangement from their family or framed for murder. Anderson writes brilliant characters and embraces the dry wit, including a smart joke rather than the obvious and also has outbursts of violence and swearing from characters to great comedy effect and timing. Furthermore, his repeated collaborations with actors, to name a few Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, show how Anderson cares for the people he writes and the story focuses on their losses and wins.

All of this; the cinematography, narrative style and the character driven films confirms that Anderson can be described as an Auteur, someone whose films reflect their unique vision as though they are the author of the film. As a writer, director and producer on all his films it can be easily said Anderson is the author of them. The bizarre worlds he creates and characters within them are always funny, heart-warming and beautifully depicted.

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